Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 18: Sanctification–Healing By Fire

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The ritual of baptism represents a person’s conversion/initiation into the life of the Church. However, baptism—especially as a symbol of death (see previous post)—signifies a much greater transformation that takes place throughout an entire person’s life. This process is called “sanctification”—making one holy or, in other words, worthy of/compatible with the presence of God. Let me start by bolding saying that one cannot enter the presence of God without being sanctified—not sanctified necessarily to a state of perfection. To be sanctified involves, at least, the opening of oneself up to the regenerative Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit in each human being, and in the Church as a whole, that produces sanctification. Conversion also does not happen in a single moment per se, as it takes a lifetime, nor is conversion that which justifies a person. However, all that being said, I do not treat sanctification as an ontological process—wherein our whole being is becoming set apart. Rather, I treat sanctification as a psychological process—one in which the psyche (the soul, life essence, or self) is being refined.

Justification—Making Righteous

Before I go in depth in this discussion, let me first clarify the difference between justification and sanctification. By saying that conversion is not that which justifies a person, what am I really saying? The New Testament—Paul in particular—makes it clear that humanity is naturally unworthy of God’s presence because of unrighteousness. However, the mission of Christ and the reason behind his death was to make humanity righteous (Grk. dikaio’o)—or to “justify” them/make them worthy/compatible before God. Look at Romans 5:6-11, 15-17:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation….But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

In many other places, Paul explains that humanity is incapable of collecting enough merit through good deeds to warrant entry into God’s presence (This is the mentality of practically all religions—including many expressions of Christianity). Salvation—or better yet, justification—is something given by God to humanity, independent of anything that humanity has done. It is the “free gift.” Thus, the Kingdom of God is available to everyone. Taking my stance on the “pistis Christou” debate*, it is not human faith in Christ that saves a person (however much we are still called to trust God in our life journeys), it was the faithfulness of Christ that saves a person. Conversion is not a one-time event; one does not become “saved” by a prayer. Salvation, or healing, as a gift of God, is something that already exists. Now, though God, through the work of Christ, has labeled humanity as “righteous,” there is still the great possibility that one may remain separated from God. This leads us to that frustrating topic of judgment (clear in Matthew 25 and Revelation 20 as well as Paul’s various comments about those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God).

It is clear to human understanding worldwide that certain standards exist for what we would consider “good” or “bad,” “righteous” or “wicked,” or, in this case, “holy” or “unholy.” However, it is difficult to determine what those standards actually are. Particularly in the topic of judgment and separating out the holy from the unholy, at what point is a person considered to be holy enough to not be deserving of punishment? As I have just discussed, Paul eliminates the existence of such a standard by claiming that “none are righteous” and that it was by God’s grace that people may even be able to draw near to the divine, and yet we still have this notion of separating the worthy from the unworthy. This notion, of course, creates that terrifying question people ask themselves: “How do I know if I am saved?”

Again, I reiterate that salvation/justification is a state that already been created by God—it is something that already exists. But if you think about it, while the free gift exists for all people, it is only really Christ who has actually been restored/redeemed. Yet, we also have the concept of the Church—the body of Christ—those who follow the footsteps of Christ. Since the Church is Christ’s body, it is also the Church—the elect—that has been redeemed. What remains is a choice. It is up to an individual person to decide whether or not he or she wants to participate in the Church and therefore the redemptive, sanctifying process that restored Christ to life. Justification is given as a gift, but sanctification is chosen. The doors of the Church may be open to all, but only the Church inherits the Kingdom of God.

Sanctification And Related Symbolism

Now to the discussion at hand. I have called sanctification—that which actually makes a person holy—a psychological process rather than an ontological process. This is to say that it is not our essence that is changing; it is our minds/psyches. The Church, therefore, is more of a psychological reality than it is an ontological one. It is a shared comprehension rather than an actual, alternative reality. Certainly, resurrection may involve the acquisition of a new physical body made of “spirit,” but resurrection doesn’t happened until the sanctification process is complete, correlating with the eschaton (end times). Even then, we do not have a complete picture of what that is, let alone anything else to do with eschatology, so it’s hard to speculate about. Anyway, if sanctification is a psychological process, it is something that people must set their minds to. Sanctification purifies the psyche, purges it, refines it. To a great extent, this is by no means a pleasant thing, for sanctification may be described like passing through fire.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, generally speaking, views the relationship between Heaven and Hell this way: Heaven is a relationship with God; Hell is separation from God. That being said, Heaven and Hell are actually the same place. They are God. We can imagine God as a fire (which is largely biblical—just take Deuteronomy 4:24 for example). Granted, biblically speaking, the symbol of fire strongly signifies the judgment of the wicked—that is the image that is being conveyed. Then again, simply God’s presence and those otherworldly beings associated with God are also described as fiery (just look at the burning bush!), which means that fire can be a symbol of divinity (as it is in many cultures throughout the world). Let’s then hold these two meanings of fire in a tension, which, as a matter of fact, the Eastern Orthodox perspective does. On a slightly side note, let’s also consider Matthew 3:11: “‘I baptize you with/in water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with/in the Holy Spirit and [with/in] fire.” There are conflicting interpretations as to what this last part means—to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Some have taken this to mean that they are two separate baptisms: the followers of Christ will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and everyone else will be baptized with fire—rather, punished with fire. The other interpretation is that they are the same baptism—the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a baptism with fire. The text itself does not provide enough evidence to prove either theory. I will point out though that “baptism” connotes a “washing” or “cleansing,” and it is difficult to think of the wicked as being “cleansed.” Nonetheless, we can, once again, hold the two views in tension.

The symbolism so far has some strong implications. God is a fire. Sanctification makes people holy, thereby making people worthy/compatible with God’s presence (which is fiery). Those who are not sanctified are punished by fire. The Kingdom of God—which at this point we can call a kingdom of fire—is available to all, but only a select number of people actually participate in it. Having the Eastern Orthodox view in mind, let’s paint a picture. All people experience the fire of God, but while some are cleansed by it, the rest are tortured by it. The difference lies in people’s willingness to accept the fire—to accept the Spirit of God. For those who wish to draw near to the presence of God, they will have to be refined—the fire will be cleansing, even healing. For those who do not wish to have a relationship with God, the fire is pain. This is not to say that the fire is not painful for those who are being sanctified. In fact, it may be more painful because the one who seeks God is more aware of his or her own sin, and it is that sin which must be purged. If they want to be close to God, they must be rid of those things that do not belong—all the dark corners must be touched by light. Everyone else who does not seek God is just in denial, finding distractions in order to avoid facing God’s chaos (see Part 13: God is Chaos), and they are condemned by their own ignorance. All this is to say is that, for the person undergoing sanctification, there is indeed a process of transforming, wherein the Holy Spirit, which a person has opened himself/herself to through the choice to be baptized, is shaping a person from their original sinful state to a state that is compatible with God’s presence. On a practical level, we experience this transformation as psychological change—a rewiring/renewing of the mind essentially—which is why I call sanctification a psychological process.

This concept is far more clear within the mystical traditions of Christianity. Generally, it has been the mystics in Christian history that have explicitly expressed the importance of sanctification, purification, or purgation. In her book Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill describes purification as “getting rid of all those elements of normal experience which are not in harmony with reality: of illusion, evil, imperfection of every kind…the self must be purged of all that stands between it and goodness: putting on the character of reality instead of the character of illusion or ‘sin.’” This purgation involves two essential acts: “the cleansing of that which is to remain, the stripping of that which is to be done away.” This naturally involves an acceptance of suffering (some mystics took suffering to an extreme by becoming masochistic). The journey of life is not without pain, but suffering can create endurance. After all, did not Christ also have to suffer? If we were to translate this into psychological terms, the purgation involves an active, purposeful confrontation with one’s inner conflicts, first identifying all those things that could keep one separated from God. If the life in the Kingdom is a life of faith, where in one’s life is one not trusting God? In what ways are those weaknesses holding one back from drawing closer to God in faith? This can be painful insomuch as we might be faced with ideas about ourselves that we would rather not admit, or we may be faced with memories we would rather forget. All these things must be reconciled with (see Part 16: The Crucified Serpent). Furthermore, purgation involves an active surrender and “letting go” of those things that belong to the old self which has been symbolically put to death by baptism, doing away with personae/complexes, tending to insecurities, and taming unbridled emotions. Because so many thoughts and behaviors belonging to the old self are habitual, we essentially need to be rehabilitated and restored with new habits. As anyone who has tried to break a bad habit a form a good habit could tell you, it is no easy thing. The closer one gets to God, the more one will be exposed to where one is lacking. Sometimes it feels like one must go through Hell in order to truly be healed.

In that process where perceptions are changing, one can even change one’s attitude to the pain of purgation. Catherine of Genoa described it as the “divine furnace of purifying love.” Underhill explains, “This ‘divine furnace of purifying love’ demands from the ardent soul a complete self-surrender, and voluntary turning from all impurity, a humility of the most far-reaching king: and this means the deliberate embrace of active suffering, a self-discipline in dreadful tasks. As gold in the refiner’s fire, so ‘burning of love into a soul truly taken all vices purgeth.’” As painful as the sanctification process may be, it is ultimately for one’s own freedom—freedom from all those burdens that keep us weak. Another way that we can look at it is that the sanctification process is that process wherein we are actually being molded and shaped or even trained by God—trained by God to become Imago Dei.

I cannot help but also mention alchemical symbolism, which Carl Jung compared at length to the transformation of the psyche. In alchemy, one of the main goals was to transform a base metal (like lead) into gold—to transform something less valuable into something incredibly valuable. The central the alchemical process was the breaking down of materials from their crude form into a more pure substance which involved purification by both water and fire. So too the corrupted aspects of the psyche are broken down to be recreated into something new and glorious. I should also mention a common pattern in story telling wherein the hero must pass through an “underworld” phase—representing his or her death—in order to find that which would help him or her to succeed at the ultimate quest. The strengthening of anything involves first a deconstruction; weakness is cast off, and the new thing rises with newfound power. The fragmented pieces of the psyche are being brought into harmony. In the case of the Christian undergoing sanctification, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

For many individuals, the sanctification process has proven to be a controversy. Many so-called Christians enjoy the thought of justification but do not necessarily want to submit to the sanctification process. Many on the path to God stop and become stagnant because they are unwilling to face the darkness of the cloud (See Part 12: The Cloud Speaks–An Honest Encounter With God), the darkness of the self, and the darkness of having to die. In that they may actively acknowledge their own salvation and put trust in God, I would not say that any of these have “lost their salvation.” In fact, for anyone that we might want to say has “lost their salvation,” we must ask whether they had ever truly opened themselves up to the Holy Spirit’s creative work in the first place. However, for those who do not want to submit more of themselves to sanctification, they really sell themselves short of that bliss which can be achieved as one matures through the sanctification process. Furthermore, unfortunately, they may also be sending a poor message to other believers or non-believers about what the life of faith looks like—which could stagnate a particular environment, keeping it in dissonance. For anyone who claims to follow Christ and to belong to the Church, the sanctification process ought to be evident, for it is actually that which a believer commits to when being baptized into the body of Christ, all for the sake of creating harmony in oneself and in the world.


* The pistis Christou debate concerns the correct translation of a phrase that appears in Pauline writings. Pistis Christou can be translated as either “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ,” the difference being something human beings have versus something that Christ had. The issue lies with the genitive case of Christos. If the genitive is to be interpreted objectively, then the faith is directed towards Christ (therefore “in”), but if the genitive is to be interpreted subjectively, it is Christ’s faith that we are speaking about. Either way presents a different soteriological implication.

Next Post: Being Human, Becoming Imago Dei – Part 19: Becoming the Image of God


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